Emerging technologies that will be used by or could, one way or another, affect trucking and transportation may remind some readers of stuff seen in the movies — in many cases, make that horror movies. Contributing Editor Aaron Marsh caught up with futurist Simon Anderson of Venture Foresight for a (slightly creepy) look at some of the latest trends and compared them to scenes from the big screen.
1. Autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks. For most people, the first time they get into a self-driving vehicle is a weird feeling. As advanced — and even potentially more reliable — as autonomous trucks and cars being tested today already may be, it's hard to shake that uneasiness of wondering if the vehicle will make the right moves... and what it might or might not do next. It's a little like the 1983 horror classic Christine, where a nerdy kid buys an old car that turns out to be possessed.
Creepiness aside, Anderson points out that autonomous trucks and cars could have positive impacts on road safety, road usage, insurance rates and fuel use. Though that's likely still some years away, he notes that the driver experience could be greatly improved in the interim as semi-autonomous systems take over some duties from drivers, reducing workload and related stress. That could improve morale and reduce turnover.
[We'll include this trailer for the 2015 prequel, since this one's just had an update.]
2. The expanding Internet(s) of things. Interconnected devices are a big trend in trucking and telematics, linking controllability and data recording from a broad range of things including electronic control modules, sensors of all kinds, cameras, servos and more. It's not unlike the concept of smart homes, streets and cities — and if you don't know this stuff is there and doing what it's doing, Anderson says, it could seem like you're in a haunted house with things coming to life on their own.
Anderson predicts that everything from connected toasters to thermostats to lighting will be ubiquitous in homes within a few years (maybe even truck sleeper berths?). You'll see it in transportation as well in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity as this tech becomes more available and will improve the quality and quantity of data used in business intelligence platforms.
3. 3D printing and carbon 3D liquid printers. Back when the movie hit theaters in 1991, the liquid metal robot/cyborg seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day seemed entirely science-fictional. That's no longer the case now that 3D printing in all its forms and possibilities has become potentially one of the most impactful, groundbreaking technologies around.
Make that "groundmaking." Anderson points to massive 3D printers from companies in China, the United States, Italy and elsewhere being able to print actual houses very inexpensively and quickly using materials from dirt and clay to fast-drying concrete. Or Carbon3D, a company based in Redwood City, CA, is making printers that instead of printing layer upon layer of material can print solid objects in liquid resin.
[In this case, the tech itself is certainly worth a look — check out this video from Carbon3D showing the company's Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology printing a model of the Eiffel Tower.]
Even in less exotic forms, 3D printing technology now available is allowing engineers to print parts of vehicles — including trucks — with less weight and higher strength, notes Anderson. That could mean better fuel economy, and it also creates a way to replace broken or failing components with parts that are printed on demand, he adds.
Apply that also to the world of manufacturing at large, and you begin to see how much trucking and goods transport really could be affected by 3D printing. Note that Amazon applied for a patent earlier this year for a system that would use 3D printers aboard trucks to produce and deliver items as buyers order them.
4. Toys and devices using artificial intelligence (AI). On the consumer side, you'll find wifi-connected, voice-interactive, "learning" devices ranging from Amazon's new Echo — which the company notes is "hands-free and always on" — to the new Hello Barbie doll. Google might get in on it, too, Anderson tells Fleet Owner: the company filed for a patent back in May for a teddy bear designed with cameras and motorization in addition to Internet connectivity.
It's enough to have you looking over your shoulder to see if a Chucky-esque doll is looking back, like in the Child's Play horror film series dating back to 1988.
Anderson explains that beyond AI toys, AI "smart assistants" can be quite helpful to users like truck drivers. Devices currently being tested act in many ways just like a human assistant, he says, and are much less expensive to employ. Such devices could help arrange deliveries, check traffic and road conditions, send messages hands-free or even keep drivers entertained to guard against fatigue.
5. Genome editing. Genetic research and experimentation today is taking on a dubious feel for many, almost like the human hybridization tale woven in H.G. Wells' 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, that's made several big screen appearances. This is a case where technology and science are getting far ahead of legislation and regulation, Anderson says.
He points to CRISPR/Cas9 (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) and TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) as examples of genomic editing tools and techniques unlocking new possibilities — and concerns. Chinese scientists, for example, claim to have genetically modified dogs and pigs for greater muscle mass or miniature-sized cuteness, respectively.
Some "fairly shocking experiments" are likely to come to light in the years to come, Anderson predicts, and it'll force societies and governments to determine what's ethical and what should be legal. Genetic tinkering reached food products some time ago; with new genomic editing tools, there could be debate over modified animals and a greater push for organic products, he notes. This potentially could affect shipping and delivery from farms.
6. Evermore advanced (and cheaper) robotics. In many ways, this one's already here. Technologically advanced robots today are being used for everything from manufacturing — and workforce mechanization — to health care and assisted living tools, driven in part by aging populations across the globe.
A few good examples include Rethink Robotics, Inc.'s Baxter and Sawyer, which are billed as "smart, collaborative" robots that can perform tasks difficult to accomplish prior robotics technologies. Or consider the advancement of drones, which are being used in settings ranging from military and law enforcement engagements to shipping and goods delivery.
[Here's a look at Rethink Robotics' Sawyer robot.]
As machines are able to be used in more ways than ever before, perhaps bolstered by artificial intelligence, some humans may well grow more skeptical or suspicious of them — just like the central character played by Will Smith in 2004's I, Robot. And while robots of that level are still years away, Anderson notes, robots have a significant impact on supply chains even now.
They can be used to make goods just as easily in the United States as they can in China, for example, and are part of the trend toward "nearshoring" and domestic manufacturing that had drifted across the Pacific in past decades. It won't add many human jobs, Anderson adds, but it does mean fewer port pickups and more shipping within North America.
7. "Chatbots" and social assistant software. It wasn't intended to be scary, per se, but many viewers found the lonely main character's love relationship with an operating system in 2013's Her creepy indeed. Others found it touching.
In connected societies increasingly living via computer and smart phone, it's not much of a surprise to see products like Microsoft's Xiaoice program engaging users in emotional relationships in much the same way. Another — and much older — example of cognitive-like computer intelligence is A.L.I.C.E., short for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity (if you'd like, you can click here to strike up your own conversation with A.L.I.C.E.).
Whether it's attached to a physical device or not, such "learning" technology and artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming a part of our lives and careers, says Anderson.
Like AI devices, AI programs might be applied to routing and load planning, picking up on things like a driver's preferred routes and possibly matching loads to drivers better, he suggests. Or more intelligent software could be applied to truck maintenance, diagnosing or even repairing problems as more devices on a truck become computers in and of themselves.
8. Predictive software and algorithms. Developments in this area, like in the 2002 movie Minority Report (and recently launched TV series of the same name), have been notable in the world of crime and law enforcement, Anderson explains.
He points to Richard Berk, PhD, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, who has developed algorithms being used to predict prison inmates' likelihood of committing future crimes and help determine the security level individuals require for incarceration. Or in the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's "Operation Lemon Drop," officers used statistical info to track down possible parole violators before they committed additional crimes.
Predictive algorithms may someday be able to forecast traffic patterns, weather disruptions and other events, says Anderson. And guess what: at least one company, Traffilog America, is using proprietary algorithms applied to truck telematics data to take preventive maintenance a step further to the predictive.
9. Augmented Reality (AR) glasses and devices. From the well-known Google Glass experiment of 2013-14 to possible follow-on technologies that could hit the market very soon, Anderson sees considerable potential for AR products. He explains that these allow users to see an interactive layer on top of reality.
That may ring a bell for fans of professional wrestler and actor Roderick Toombs — better known as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, who died three months ago — and the cult classic They Live from 1988. In the movie, a particular pair of sunglasses reveals that the world has been taken over by aliens.
[Have a look at this intriguing video that came from Magic Leap just two weeks ago, which purports to show footage shot directly through the company's forthcoming AR product.]
This kind of tech is likely going to be big for things like computer gaming but could have a number of real-world applications for trucking and other fields, Anderson notes.
For instance, maybe it'll allow an experienced technician to walk a driver through a complicated fix for a mechanical problem via the driver's AR glasses, he says, using schematic diagrams overlaid on actual parts in need of repair. Or perhaps a driver with AR glasses could "see through" a load in a trailer or warehouse to locate a particular item.
And you can take that model and apply it in many, many ways — consider a team of surgeons or military explosives technicians doing much the same thing.
10. Head and other ultra-advanced transplants, pig hearts for humans and even 3D-bioprinted organs.
Here's a fitting end for this list, since some consider it the beginning: it's been done, redone, parodied, re-envisioned and more since before movies had sound, and it's even got another big update due in theaters next month. Frankenstein epitomizes the horror film genre, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel dating back to 1818 tells a classic tale of man's ill-advised tampering with that which is better left alone.
[With so many different versions of this one, here's a trailer from one of the originals.]
Even this is becoming the realm of modern technology, notes Anderson, with at least one physician whose personal goal is to "transcend human limits" aiming to accomplish a full human head transplant, and less drastic transplants now quite possible (such as an 8-year-old boy's remarkable double hand transplant three months ago at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia).
Other emerging technologies will fold into this, Anderson adds, with genomic editing potentially offering ways to modify pig organs for human transplant. Researchers at companies like San Diego-based Organovo and elsewhere are working on, yes, 3D printable human tissues and organs.
And meanwhile, should self-driving vehicles become the norm on roadways, there's the bright possibility of reduced accidents — which he points out is currently the top source for organ donations. So something may need to step in to take up the (fortunate) slack.
Although this one may have a number of frightening aspects to it, Anderson says emerging and converging technologies in this case could offer longer, healthier lives for people and allow them to remain in the workforce longer — another major problem predicted in the decades to come.